What is Ecological Civilisation? 

The Chinese Communist Party last week held its annual plenum in Beijing at which details of the country’s 13th Five Year Plan, from 2016 to 2020, were set out for the first time. The plan, say commentators, will be notably green, with an emphasis on an economic transition to slower, innovation-led growth, and more stringent targets on curbing pollution and fossil fuels.

But what form might this greening take, and what policy approaches might be employed to achieve it? Some clues can be found in a new, high-level narrative – of “Ecological Civilisation” – which has been codified in recent Party and government documents and looks to set a course for China’s environmental governance over the next plan and beyond.

The unpromisingly titled Central Document Number 12, “Opinions of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and the State Council on Further Promoting the Development of Ecological Civilisation”, was released in April this year. In September, the “Integrated Reform Plan for Promoting Ecological Progress” fleshed this out further.

What is novel about these texts, which include many top-level commitments to clean up China’s economic model through environmental targets, is that they also attempt to address systemic obstacles to effective governance of the environment, by setting out standards, mechanisms and reforms that aim to improve implementation.

These mechanisms include potentially significant new ways to punish and reward officials, by abandoning “economic growth as the only criterion in government performance assessment” and establishing a “lifelong accountability system”, which would ensure for the first time that environmental violations will affect an official’s chances of promotion and environmental black marks will stay on the work record for the rest of his or her career.

These could be big changes – but need to be understood in the context of a dynamic and sometimes confusing political and historical landscape.

To begin to better understand how the Chinese government might achieve these reforms – and what it means for sustainable development more broadly — Adrian Ely and I have co-authored a new STEPS working paper, which explores this and some of the other political slogans that have underpinned China’s recent policies around sustainable development and innovation.

Drawing on theoretical insights from work at STEPS that investigates the role of power in shaping knowledge, action and narratives like “Ecological Civilisation”, the working paper – which was first prepared ahead of the “Pathways to Sustainability in a Changing China” conference in April 2015 – explores the ways in which dominant policy narratives in China might drive particular forms of innovation for sustainability, and potentially occlude or constrain others.

As this and other green slogans continue their ascent to official narratives, the paper raises some important questions for future research around China’s environmental future.